Today I become 60 years old. Given the tendency to celebrate milestone occasions, I’ve been thinking about this year’s birthday more deeply than in the past. I find myself pondering what’s important to me and what I’ve enjoyed the most over the past 60 years. At the top of the list are family, marriage, and fatherhood. I have certainly enjoyed being a rabbi and a mohel, but the most fulfilling part of my life has been being married to Amy and raising our five sons together. Each one of them is a beautiful soul, a good and decent person, and deeply committed to Jewish life, to Am Yisrael and to Medinat Yisrael. Raising our sons has been a true joy. I cannot think of a single difficult, agonizing moment in the course of being a parent (people who hear me say that think I’m joking but I’m not). And as our sons get older, we have the pleasure of seeing them develop their lives and start their own families. We’ll welcome our second grandchild into the family in about a month, and our son Benji, who just graduated from college, will get married in August. My wife inherited a superstition from her mother that prohibits tempting the evil eye by enumerating one’s blessings. But I inherited no such thing, so as I turn 60, I say proudly that my family is the greatest blessing in my life.
As you might expect, our tradition offers a commentary on what it means to be 60 years old. In Pirkei Avot (5:21), there is a passage that describes life as having three periods: preparation, maturity, and decline. The Mishna lays out a sequence from age 5 to 100 that includes characteristics of heart, mind, and soul. What’s predicted for age 60 is rather unsettling- zikna or old age. Given that I most certainly feel young, I am determined to search for a different understanding of what this text, and the word zikna, means.
One translation I came upon is far more appealing: 60 is the time of sagacity. Put another way, turning 60 is the beginning of the time to age wisely. It’s the time in life to use what we’ve learned and experienced to deepen wisdom. Developing and sharing wisdom enables us to use good judgment, knowledge, and perspective to have a positive impact on our own lives, on our relationships and on events around us.
Rabbi Rachel Cowan z”l, a Mayflower descendant, convert to Judaism, and innovative rabbi who pioneered non-traditional approaches to Jewish life, identified the stage of life beginning at 60 as Et Zikna, a time for wise aging. She writes:
“This generation has seen a revolution in lifespan. We who turn 60 nowadays have the prospect of living at least another 30 years with relatively good health and vitality. We are pioneers, entering a stage of life never experienced by earlier generations. This is our “third chapter,” our “third act,” our time of “active aging.” Put another way, it is our “et zikna,” our time to age wisely. These years are a time of opportunity for discovery. Et Zikna is a time for increased curiosity, enthusiasm, and spirit. There is a lot to learn and to try, choices to make, risks to take, fun and joy to experience.”
The idea of wise aging is even embedded in this week’s Torah portion. The Parasha tells of the actual moment of liberation for the Israelite slaves and the Exodus from Egypt. Chapter 12 describes the ritual of the sacrifice of the Korban Pesach, the paschal lamb, which we symbolize on the seder plate with the shank bone. After detailing how to offer the sacrifice and how to celebrate the first Passover evening, the text says: “Moses then summoned all the elders of Israel and said to them, ‘Go pick out lambs for your families, and slaughter the Passover offering.’” The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 16:1) wonders why the elders were given the special privilege of picking out the lambs that were to become the instrument of liberation for the people. The answer is intriguing:
“Wherein did the elders merit that Israel should be redeemed at their hands? Because when the Holy One, blessed be He, revealed Himself to Moses at the bush, He said ‘Go and gather the elders of Israel together.’ Immediately after they did, the Torah says ‘And the people believed.’ For had not the elders not accepted Moses’ promise of freedom to the people, then the whole of Israel would also not have believed him. The elders accepted it first and influenced the rest of Israel, encouraging them to believe. God, therefore, said, ‘I will confer honor upon the elders so that the redemption of Israel shall be through their hands.’”
Here we see that the elders used their wisdom, their willingness to believe in the possibility of a better future, to give confidence, strength and resolve to their people. Such people are referred to in the Torah as “Ziknei Yisrael,” the elders, or more properly those who were aging wisely and using their experience, knowledge, and insight to nurture curiosity, enthusiasm, hope, and spirit about the future.
I will spend this 60th birthday with my family (I’ve asked each of my sons for some uninterrupted conversation). And I will ponder all the experiences that are ahead of me to enjoy, all that there is to learn, all the ways there are to grow intellectually and spiritually, and all the ways I might be able to be a positive influence on my family and my community. If Pirkei Avot is to be trusted, then today begins my Et Zikna, a time of wise aging, of fun and of joy.